On October 2nd of last year, the Saudi Arabian journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The killing, according to the C.I.A., was carried out on the orders of the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, or M.B.S., as he is often known. (David Ignatius, who has been reporting on the case for the Washington Post, recently wrote that it was possible that the intent of the Istanbul operation was only to kidnap Khashoggi.) Khashoggi's murder has imperilled M.B.S.'s ability to operate internationally, with world leaders distancing themselves from him and companies with business interests in the kingdom expressing second thoughts about investing there. In the U.S., however, he has allies in the White House—most notably the President and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner—and connections well beyond it. Before Khashoggi's death, M.B.S. was fêted by business leaders and celebrities from Rupert Murdoch and Robert Iger to the Rock. Commentators on the region, including the Times' Thomas Friedman, hailed him as a visionary reformer. As Khashoggi's life and death recede into history, one question hanging over Saudi Arabia is whether M.B.S.'s international reputation can be reëstablished.
Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton, is one of the most prominent commentators on modern Saudi Arabia. Haykel has met M.B.S., communicated with him via WhatsApp, and voiced support for the crown prince's agenda, which includes economic reform and ending the ban on women driving. He also said, of his political talents, "I mean, he makes you feel like you're the center of his universe when he's speaking to you, which is a kind of a trait that I think you're born with." Haykel condemned Khashoggi's death, but, in its aftermath, offered guidance for the kingdom, stating on CNN, "What I have been telling the Saudis is that they have to come up with a narrative, with a story that is plausible, that, you know, rebuffs the leaks that the Turks have been deliberately engaged in—that they lost the narrative thread because of the Turkish leaks, and they have to explain what happened to him."
I recently had several phone conversations with Haykel, which have been edited for length and clarity. We discussed his communications with M.B.S., how much blame the Saudis deserve for the war in Yemen, his consulting work in the Middle East, and whether America should focus less—or more—on human rights abroad.
How secure is M.B.S.'s grip on power in Saudi Arabia? Is there any evidence he has lost the confidence of his father, the King, who still officially rules the country?
My sense is that he is very secure in his position, that he controls all the levers of power, and that he still enjoys the full support of his father, and that there is absolutely no daylight between him and his father. Had there been any difference or daylight, we would have seen it, because a number of people have tried to speak to the King about him, basically to complain about him. And, for a number of years now, he has enjoyed the support of his dad, who is an absolute monarch. So M.B.S. has the final say in all decisions in everything that happens in Saudi Arabia.
Do you have any sense of what the King may have made of the controversies in Saudi Arabia over the past six months, and whether he may hold his son responsible?
I don't, and, frankly, I don't think anyone does. I don't think anyone has access to the conversations that happen between the King and his son. And my sense is that M.B.S. enjoys his father's full support. His father also has maybe given him advice on how to behave and what to do. I don't get the sense that he is deviating from his father's broad policy guidelines, and those policy guidelines from his father are really two. The first is to diversify the economy away from oil and to generate jobs in the private sector, principally for graduating Saudi students who are coming onto the job market. The second is to basically build Saudi Arabia's political and military capacity, so it becomes a major regional player that is less dependent on the United States, or anyone else, for that matter.
Do you think that M.B.S. has learned any lessons from Khashoggi or the war in Yemen?
On Khashoggi, I think it is too early to tell. I have been informed that there has been a reshuffle of the inner decision-making processes within the royal court and that a number of very seasoned and experienced Saudi officials and administrators have come to the fore. We will see if those changes have an effect. As far as the war in Yemen is concerned, my sense is that the Saudis really would like to get out of the war, would like to end it; they just don't know how to do so without basically leaving a major beachhead for Iran in that country in the form of the Houthi rebels, who would take over the country.
You could starve everyone. Then there would be no beachhead. So what does that mean they are doing if there is no way to get out?
It's a quagmire in the same way that the U.S. is in a quagmire in Afghanistan, or how the U.S. was in Vietnam. They can't defeat the Houthis, and they feel that, if they just drop the war and withdraw, that country would become a threat to the national security of Saudi Arabia. I think that Yemen is a fairly complicated situation. Saudi Arabia certainly plays a very important role in exacerbating the humanitarian conditions, but you have to remember there is also a civil war that predates the Saudi involvement there. So it is more complicated than just attributing everything that happens there to Saudi Arabia.
Do you think that the humanitarian catastrophe has weighed on the rulers of Saudi Arabia at all?
A couple things: I think Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries know that they will have to eventually pay for the rebuilding of Yemen. And that the Yemenis are not just Arabs but Arabians. So I do think they feel some responsibility for what is happening there and what will happen after the war, as well. They have offered humanitarian aid to the U.N. and directly to Yemen. And we are talking hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, so the idea that they are completely oblivious to Yemen is belied by what they offer by way of humanitarian aid in terms of food and other supplies.
But continuing the war?
Yes, continuing the war, because I think there is a serious conviction that the war in Yemen has to do with Iran. I personally think that they cannot win that war, that the Houthis are both too strong and too entrenched in that war, and that, in fact, Saudi Arabia would do better to go back to its old policy of dealing with Yemen through the tribes, through the different political notables in the country, in other words, to spread patronage, to try to build clients among the Yemenis, rather than engage in a full war. And then also to let the Houthis run the country if they think they can, which I don't think they will be able to.
In a Washington Post piece on Saudi Arabia last year, before the Khashoggi killing, you wrote dismissively of people who depict M.B.S. as "power-hungry and corrupt" and applauded many of his recent moves, essentially saying that he was a reformer. Do you still feel that way?
No, this has to do specifically with the Ritz-Carlton arrests. The argument that was being made then was that he arrested hundreds of princes and businessmen and administrators and bureaucrats because he wanted to shake them down for their money, for his own personal enrichment, and he needed to put them in their place, because he wanted to take their power, because they represented a threat to him. And that, I argued, was false, because he controls the treasury completely. If he wants it, he can take it. And he already was then, and still is, the most powerful person in the country. No one can threaten him in terms of his position, short of an assassination. He took money, but he took money for the government.
So you think it was with the national interest in mind?
I think he does have the national interest in mind. Now, one could argue that his idea of what the national interest is is misguided or poorly executed and certainly very poorly explained to the world.
What is the status of women in Saudi Arabia today, and particularly some of the female human-rights activists who have been imprisoned and, they claim, tortured?
The imprisonment and the alleged torture of the human-rights activists, and, frankly, all activists, is unpardonable and inexcusable. I think the Saudis ought to immediately free all the female political prisoners and other prisoners, or make it very clear what crime it is they committed. It is not obvious to me what they did, other than to criticize using social media. That's one issue that I want to make fairly clear.
As far as women in terms of public space and the economy, yes, there has definitely been a huge difference as a result of M.B.S.'s policies. I have been going to Saudi Arabia since the nineteen-nineties. A woman walking alone on the street would be harassed. Today, that is no longer a feature of daily life. There is surely still harassment, but it is clear women have much more public presence, including in how they dress and appear in public, and that is due to the changes that he has effected. In the past, the argument was often made that the religious establishment or the more conservative, reactionary elements of society would not tolerate women driving or a mixed-gender environment in the workforce. M.B.S. has proved that not to be the case. What he has also done is clamp down very seriously on the religious establishment, the religious police, taken away their power; he has imprisoned many Islamists. He has made it clear to any opponents of these social reforms, specifically to do with women, that there would be a very high price to pay for opposing him.
You previously said of M.B.S. that "he also realizes that women are the better half of the population in terms of human capital. They are the better educated, the harder working, and so if he wants to build up the private sector and diversify the economy, he's going to have to rely more on women than on men. And he's done many other things. I mean, he has broken with a great number of traditional policies of the Saudi royal family." Do you still feel that way?
Yes, although he is not a feminist—one should not attribute any feminist instinct or impulse to him. I think he just sees women as the better educated, as I said, and more disciplined element in the human capital that he has. And he also knows that the Saudi economy, if it is ever to properly diversify, it cannot be a place where women are not seen, where one cannot interact with them. I think a lot of it is based on pure pragmatism.
You also said, "In effect, he's leading a revolution from above—so far bloodless, thank God."
Yeah, I mean, to be frank with you, well before M.B.S. ever appeared on the scene, I knew that, sooner or later, someone would have to arise from within the royal family and take over and essentially disenfranchise large numbers of royals, in particular, who had become parasitic. And I thought that the person who would rise up would have to use a lot of violence to effect change and disenfranchise, and I am frankly surprised that that hasn't happened.
Look, he is repressive, there is no question that he is repressive, there is no question that he is an autocrat. But I would have expected levels of violence comparable to, let's say, Saddam's Iraq or Sisi's Egypt, or the Algerian generals. I thought that one would have to resort to that level, and he has not attained that level, and hopefully he never will. But I wouldn't say he wouldn't do it. He might actually become much more repressive if he doesn't get his way.
Where are you today on exactly what happened with the Khashoggi killing?
I don't have proof or evidence as to what happened. My suspicion was—is, actually—that the Saudis have been involved for a number of years, well before M.B.S., in a campaign of kidnapping dissidents, although they have not killed them in the past. It is very rare for them to draw blood. My sense is that the Khashoggi affair was probably a continuation of an existing policy to kidnap dissidents and bring them back and then imprison them, and either that was what was asked, and something went wrong and he was killed, or an order was given to kill him. I don't know whether it is one or the other.
You have been called an adviser to M.B.S. Are you—
I'm not. I never was an adviser to M.B.S. I, like many hundreds of Americans, have met with him several times. I am not his adviser. I have given him—when I have spoken to him, I have always spoken very bluntly and truthfully.
Does he call you for advice?
No. I have been to Saudi a few times, and, when he comes to America, I have met with him, like Fareed Zakaria has done, like many other people have done. The difference is that I speak their dialect, and I am an expert on his country. Unlike, let's say, Fareed or David Ignatius, I am actually a scholar of Saudi Arabia, right?
So you are not WhatsApping with him, Jared Kushner style?
I was, actually, with him for a while, because he gave me his cell phone number and asked me to WhatsApp with him. I never initiated contact with him. He would sometimes initiate contact with me.
About what kind of stuff?
It varied. It was about economic policy, about the future of oil in the kingdom, about Jamal.
Before his death or after?
No, after. After.
Do you remember what he said?
He said that he was deeply shocked by the reaction in the West and that he was looking to the East, and I said that would be really sad, because there is a long and strategic relationship with the United States and with the West, and that the East will never be able to replace the West.
Did you get a sense of what he thought about Khashoggi's death beyond that?
No, not really.
But you guys don't WhatsApp much anymore?
No, he changed his number. It was initiated by him and I would respond, and sometimes I would ask him about something unrelated to what he had written to me about, and then we would have an exchange. In Arabic. All in Arabic. Unlike Jared or any of these other people, I would be writing in Arabic. There were also many other issues having to do with religion, having to do with the West, having to do with Lebanon. Yemen. I told him that he can't win the war in Yemen militarily and that he should think of another way to deal with Yemen, and I suggested a different way.
What did you suggest?
He had local people in Saudi Arabia who knew the Yemeni sociological and political landscape extremely intimately, and that he should resort, rather than to war, to personal connections with different Yemeni factions and leaders. It was very detailed, nitty-gritty advice about how to manage Yemen without resorting to war.
When Khashoggi was killed, you stated on CNN that "in the Middle East today, where you have at least four states that are failed, and with chaos raging in Yemen and in Syria and Libya and the Sinai, we cannot afford to have another unstable state. And certainly not a state of the importance of Saudi Arabia. So it's extremely important that we focus on stability and on order." So were you essentially saying that putting too much pressure on the Saudis or M.B.S. would be a geopolitical mistake?
No, no, no. What I was saying very specifically is that the United States should not meddle in the internal affairs of succession and who should be the leader of Saudi Arabia. That is an internal matter for the Saudis to decide. If we start deciding that one prince should be the leader and not another, then that could destabilize the country.
Aren't we doing that, though? Aren't Jared Kushner and Trump essentially trying to insure that M.B.S. is the next leader?
Yes, I don't think either supporting him or trying to topple him is the role of the United States. Especially a country of the size and importance of Saudi Arabia. What I care about are American interests in the region, and one core American interest is not to have a civil war rage in a country like Saudi Arabia.
And a country like Yemen, too?
Well, ideally, yes, we wouldn't want a civil war in a country like Yemen, either, but Yemen is simply not as important strategically as Saudi Arabia is to us.
How do you think the Trump Administration has dealt with Saudi Arabia?
Are you talking about the President, or . . . ?
All of them.
Well, there was a time when Secretary of State [Rex] Tillerson was more pro-Qatari, it seems, than he was pro-Saudi, so there have been different voices within the Trump Administration on this issue. President Trump, though, and his son-in-law and Secretary of State [Mike] Pompeo have been very pro-Saudi and very pro-M.B.S., and the logic, I suspect, is that they want that country to remain stable and that American interests require that.
Do you agree with that?
I think that the Trump Administration should ask for accountability, real accountability, in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. I think that's important, and the Saudis and M.B.S. should not just be given a pass for that kind of behavior.
It seems like you are saying that, at one level, Saudi Arabia needs a reformer who will crack some heads together, and that, at another level, human-rights violations are really bad and political prisoners should be freed. And, at the same time, we need an alliance with Saudi Arabia, and we shouldn't meddle too much or push them on human rights, but Khashoggi needs to be accounted for. What is the over-all picture? Are we caring too much about human rights? Not enough?
The question of human rights and values versus interests is a perennial problem and a perennial tension for America. I think that, ideally, I privilege interests over values, especially in a country where instability would lead potentially to another war with U.S. forces, which is something that I think would be a real disaster for the United States.
But I don't think that values and human rights should just be swept under the carpet. One formative experience, for me, was the Carter Administration's push of the Shah of Iran to insist that human rights are the most important factor in the relationship. I think that may have played a very important role in the Revolution there, and that led to a Middle East that has been unstable for the past forty years.
Couldn't you start the clock a quarter century earlier and say that the U.S. role in the coup in 1953, and how it behaved in the twenty-six years leading up to the Revolution, played some role?
That its blind support for the monarchy is what led to the Revolution?
Well, at least exacerbated the situation there.
Yeah, I mean, that is also a valid argument. It's a really difficult thing to know how to balance values and interests.
What have you made of the recent wave of arrests this past week, which has included at least two people with dual Saudi-American citizenship?
My sense, from the news reporting, of the latest arrests is that the regime in Riyadh is doubling down on the repression, rather than addressing the concerns of the West and the United States and the international community about what the justifications are for these arrests. It signals an increase in repression, which again, I find hard to understand and impossible to explain. The regime in Riyadh has very considerable political, economic, and symbolic capital, and it does not to need to resort to repression to command obedience and to garner legitimacy.
I guess that begs the question of why it is being done.
It could be the personality of the crown prince. It could be the people around him who are paranoid and just repressive, just encouraging the worst instincts. This is a regime that goes back to the eighteenth century, that doesn't owe its existence to Western colonialism, that has deep roots in the society, and the very country was created by the royal family. It has historically not had to be like a Saddam regime, an Assad regime, to stay in power. So to turn to those repressive tactics that we see in Egypt or Iraq and Syria and Algeria seem unnecessary, gratuitous, and wrong.
Is Saudi influence or money an issue in Middle Eastern-studies departments?
The Saudis have never given money to my department or to me. As far as I know, they have never given money to Princeton at all. Maybe in the nineteen-eighties, for some science, maybe. But I don't think there has been any money at all, in the last thirty years, to Princeton. Now, individual Saudis, members of the royal family, have given money to Georgetown, to Harvard, setting up professorships—to some of the California schools. At Princeton, we never take Saudi money.
[A spokesperson for Princeton wrote in an e-mail, "The only funding coming to the University from Saudi Arabia is through research collaborations supported in part by King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, a private research university in Saudi Arabia. That funding totals about $1 million between 2017 and 2021. The University does not have a direct institutional partnership with KAUST."]
Do you have business in Saudi Arabia? Do you do consulting with Saudi Arabia?
No, not with Saudi companies, no.
But with American companies?
With American, with Western companies that do business in the Middle East, yes.
What is your role?
Political risk. I offer political-risk advice. [Haykel later explained, "There are a number of Western companies, for instance hedge funds, or oil companies, or banks, financial institutions, that are interested in knowing what the political and economic environment is like in the Middle East." He added, "I don't work as a person who either provides access or who makes commissions from deals. I don't sell access. I also decided that I would never work for any Middle Eastern government, despite the fact that they have made offers."]
Does that ever inhibit what you feel like you can say?
No. Does it sound like I am inhibiting what I am saying?
Well, I am just asking.
I don't. No.